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City of Kandy and its hinterlands as an urban biosphere reserve

Biosphere Reserve: The Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Council of the United Nations Scientific, Educational, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) at its 15th session in December 1998 recommended the MAB Secretariat in Paris to explore the application of the Biosphere Reserve (BR) concept to urban areas and their hinterlands.

The Biosphere Reserve concept recognises the fact that it is possible to achieve a sustainable balance between the conservation of biological diversity, economic development, and maintenance of associated cultural values.

These are to be logistically supported by research and education at all times. The validity of this concept is tested, refined, demonstrated, and implemented in the Biosphere Reserves. Currently there are 507 biosphere reserves distributed in 102 countries across the world and the list is growing each year.

In Sri Lanka, at present, there are four biosphere reserves viz. Hurulu (designated in 1977), Sinharaja (in


Temple of the Tooth surrounded by the Kandy Lake

 1978), Kanneliya-Nakiyadeniya-Dediyagala (in 2004) and Bundala (in 2005).

An Urban Biosphere Reserve is expected to contribute towards conservation and sustainable development through urban planning and management focusing on ecosystem approach of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The ecosystem approach embodied in both the CBD and the BR concept is a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way.

Why Urban Biosphere Reserves? - The Context

A recent report of the MAB urban group states that about half of the world’s population today lives in urban landscapes and this proportion is expected to increase to two-thirds within 50 years.

The rapid increase of large cities in the developing world and the expansion of urban landscapes in the developed world represent one of the greatest challenges to ensure basic human welfare and a viable global environment.

A UN report states that by the year 2050, some six billion people representing two-thirds of humanity will be living in towns and cities. Never before in history has the world witnessed such rapid urbanisation. Neither has it witnessed such a swift rise in the absolute numbers of people migrating to the urban areas.

Majority of these people will be living in urban slums with limited access to basic services, limited participation in decision-making processes and facing extreme vulnerability to natural disasters.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) has recently identified urbanization and urban landscapes as a priority area that requires deeper understanding of their ecosystem processes and increased capacity to adapt to the rapid and often unplanned urbanisation process.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was launched in 2001 as a UN supported research programme that focuses on ecosystem changes over the course of decades, and projecting those changes into the future.

The MA report stresses that in urban areas, green spaces and vegetation may provide a number of ecosystem regulating processes, cultural services (spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, recreation, aesthetic experience etc.) and supporting services but the diversity and complexity of processes demand innovative ways to manage and maintain these services.

urban ecosystems

The urban landscapes probably represent the most complex mosaic of land-cover and multiple land uses of any landscape. Consequently, they provide large-scale probing experiments of the effects of global change on ecosystems.

The human domination of urban ecosystems provide extreme, visible and measurable examples of increased pollution, warming and associated changes. Therefore, urbanisation places increased pressure on fragile and vulnerable ecosystems.

The MAB Urban Biosphere Group has proposed the following working definition of an Urban Biosphere Reserve (UBR). It is a Biosphere Reserve characterised by important urban areas within or adjacent to its boundaries where the natural, socio- economic and cultural environments are shaped by urban influences and pressures, and established and managed to mitigate these pressures for improved urban and regional sustainability.

While some large as well as small cities in several countries have already been declared as urban biosphere reserves e.g., Sao Paulo City Green Belt Biosphere Reserve, in Brazil, the application of the Biosphere Reserve concept to urban areas is being considered for New York Metropolitan Area in the USA, Cape Town in South Africa, Seoul in South Korea, Mexico City in Mexico, National Urban Park in Stockholm County in Sweden, urban and periurban green areas of Rome, Italy and perhaps many more in the wake of ‘nature consciousness’ among stressed city-folk. Kandy and its hinterlands - A case for the first Urban Biosphere Reserve to be proposed for Sri Lanka?

unique traditional values

Kandy, the cultural capital and also a green city is already inscribed in the list of World Heritage Sites (WHS) in recognition of its unique traditional cultural values.

The international World Heritage Programme contributes to conservation of sites of outstanding cultural or natural significance to the common heritage of humanity and Kandy was designated as a cultural world heritage site in 1988.

However, as a Cultural World Heritage Site, Kandy is being recognised internationally more for its rich cultural values and less so for the potentially significant ecological values that the Kandy city and its hinterlands could offer.

Therefore, an Urban Biosphere designation to Kandy and the ‘Greater Kandy Area’ including its hinterland will give the area an international recognition for the important cultural as well as ecological values of the whole area.

Since Kandy is already a WHS, the UBR could be demarcated around this protected area as in the case of Sinharaja which currently enjoys both designations.

The primary objective of developing a proposal to nominate the ‘Greater Kandy Area’ as an Urban Biosphere Reserve is to strengthen its ecological services to communities within the area as well as those living beyond the designated area on all sides including the all important down-stream Mahaweli areas.

Furthermore, it will help to develop eco-friendly rural enterprises with eco-certification of their products and thereby preserving and maintaining, as far as possible, existing traditional and healthy lifestyles of Kandyan people.

Among the local and international goals of designating a ‘Greater Kandy Biosphere Reserve’ would be the following:

  •  Provide practical ways to resolve land use conflicts and to protect its relict indigenous biodiversity (Gannoruwa forest and Hantana range are good examples) as well as naturalised agro-biodiversity in home gardens and traditional silvo-pastoral systems,
  • Help create and maintain a healthy environment for local communities,
  • Maintaining ecologically acceptable and at the same time economically productive landscapes,
  • Reduce conflicts among people particularly on land utilization planning and implementation, especially on steep slopes and valleys below,
  • Encourage diverse local economies to revitalize rural areas through eco-friendly innovations,
  • Support and facilitate inter-disciplinary scientific studies and monitoring and the Greater Kandy Area generally known as Vidya Raja Pura has the benefit of a pool of scientists from a wide range of agencies in and around Kandy,
  • Provide greater opportunities and share ideas for education, recreation and tourism to address conservation and sustainability issues,
  • Co-operate on thematic projects based on topics such as Kandyan home/forest gardens, climate change, (mixed species analog forests),
  • Celebrate cultural diversity and provide opportunities to maintain existing traditions and lifestyles.

At a time when Kandy is grappling with containing and reducing the atmospheric pollutant loads primarily because of its geographic features being a basin surrounded by mountain ranges, the authorities need to seriously rethink their strategy as to how it could bring back a healthy and salubrious environment for which once it was renowned.

At the International Conference on Humid Tropical Ecosystems organised by the National Man and the Biosphere Committee of Sri Lanka together with UNESCO-MAB Secretariat in Paris, France and the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka and held in Kandy in December 2006, it was agreed in principle, to look into the feasibility of preparing a nomination of Kandy and its hinterland as an Urban Biosphere Reserve to be submitted to the UNESCO-MAB Secretariat.

The nomination procedure involves a detailed submission of a prescribed form together with supporting background documents, maps etc. which need to be completed and approved by the authorities responsible for the ownership and management of the core areas and buffer zones.

The Statutory Framework of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves provides a guide to the Advisory Committee on Biosphere Reserves and the MAB Council and its Bureau when considering Biosphere Reserve nominations.

Sri Lanka celebrated the World Habitat Day in Kandy on October 1. The importance of recognising the cultural as well as ecological values of Kandy and its hinterlands should be given due consideration and eventually the ‘Greater Kandy Area’ would emerge as the first urban biosphere reserve in Sri Lanka in meeting the challenges of rapid urbanisation.

The writer is Professor of Botany,
University of Peradeniya

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